If you haven’t seen Environmental Working Group’s 2010 sunscreen guide and Carrie Kirby’s excellent report on it in WiseBread, now is the time to start reading. Hang onto your hat (literally: you’ll be needing it!).
The long and the short of it is that most commonly used sunscreens are not as effective as claimed and contain ingredients that may do more harm than good. Vitamin A, currently popular in U.S. sunscreens, may actually accelerate growth of skin tumors. Oxybenzone, the most common ingredient in these cosmetics, is a hormone growth disruptor and should not be used on children.
Sunlight delivers two types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA, which penetrates deep into the skin, and UVB, which causes sunburn. Scientists believe that to avoid melanoma, an aggressive and deadly skin cancer, you need protection against both UVA and UVB. However, most sunscreens sold in this country provide little or no protection against UVA radiation.
Interestingly, researchers do not even agree on whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer at all. In fact, some speculate that use of sunscreens encourages people to stay out in the sun longer than they might otherwise do, and, since these products do not necessarily protect against the carcinogenic effects of ultraviolet radiation, they may actually increase the risk of skin cancer. To obtain any meaningful amount of protection from a sunscreen, you need to glop it on: a palmful at a time. And you have to reapply it frequently. Using high-SPF products does nothing to change these facts.
Seals of approval by the American Cancer Society, such as the one that appears on the tube of Neutrogena UltraSheer sitting next to my keyboard, get there because the manufacturer pays for the privilege of using it. Says the ACS: “…[W]e do not endorse a specific product and…a royalty fee has been paid for the use of our brand logo.” To get the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation, manufacturers pay $10,000 a year to belong to SCF’s Corporate Council.
Is there a solution to this conundrum?
Yup. You’ve got it hanging in your closet: clothes. Wear clothing and a hat when you go outdoors.
Indigenous peoples in hot, sunny parts of the world often wear traditional clothing that protects them from the sun. When I grew up in Saudi Arabia, the locals wore robes covering them from head to toe. We know, of course, of the notorious burqa intended to hide women from the public eye—because these were black, they must have been miserably hot, further discouraging women from appearing in public during the sunlight hours. The men wore white, sun-reflective robes that allowed air to circulate around the body, and a headdress that protected the back of the neck, much of the face, and any bald spots in the hair.
Meanwhile, we whiteys ran around half-naked in the 100-degree heat, all of us in pursuit of a “healthy tan.”
Loose cotton and linen clothing is readily available in this country, for men as well as for women. Get some, and get a few nice hats. Wear them when you go outdoors. And use the pool in the very early morning and at night, not in the midday sun.